The Future of Diesel in the United States: Has Volkswagen Finally Done What GM Couldn’t?

By Jonathan Spira on 30 September 2015
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An Audi A8 TDI Sedan

It was 1981 in America, and diesel was in its heyday. Sales of diesel-powered automobiles that year reached 520,788 (out of roughly 6.5 million), and 60% of those came from General Motors. These included the General’s biggest sedans, the Cadillac Fleetwood and Sedan de Ville, the Buick Electra and LeSabre, and the Oldsmobile 98 and 88.

Buyers, shell shocked from the oil crises of the 1970s, were putting up with the noise, fumes, and iffy starting in cold weather that were the diesel trademarks.

That all came to an abrupt halt four years later.

The diesels from GM, which had made up the majority of U.S. diesel sales, weren’t reliable. Blocks cracked and crankshafts as well as the patience of the cars’ owners wore out. Production of these cars ended in 1985 and took the burgeoning diesel market with it.

Simply put, GM singlehandedly killed the diesel market in America.

Fast forward to 2008.


It was just around then that multiple factors – namely the availability of ultralow-sulfur diesel fuel, the emergence of exhaust-scrubbing technologies that meet California emissions requirements, skyrocketing fuel costs, and higher fuel-economy standards – came together in a perfect storm to set the stage for a diesel renaissance in the United States. At major auto shows across the country in 2008, automakers – among them Acura, Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen – announced new diesel-powered vehicles for the U.S. market. Diesel concept cars, which frequently portend the arrival of a new model, included the Jeep Renegade, Land Rover LRX, Mitsubishi Concept-RA, and Saturn Flextreme.

Needless to say, some automakers, namely Acura, Mitsubishi, and Saturn, never brought a diesel to market (Saturn ceased operations in 2010); others such as Land Rover, first introduced one a few years later.

Click here to continue to Page 2Cleaner, Faster, More Efficient Diesels?

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